This is the second post in a series of blogs dealing with gun control from a Christian perspective. In the first installment (“Seek the Welfare of the City”), I sketched the general theological case for sane restriction on guns, particularly assault weapons, and applied biblical principles to common objections. Now I will begin looking at biblical texts used by Christian gun advocates to support their view that Scripture supports unrestricted access to lethal weaponry for private individuals. In this installment I examine Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells his disciples, “And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.”
An Obscure Saying
Luke 22:35-38 is a troublesome text for scholars, pastors, or anyone trying to correlate the obscure “call to arms” found in this passage with Jesus’ clear teaching and example elsewhere. A recent doctoral dissertation on this pericope calls it “one of the most enigmatic texts in the gospels.” The setting is the final week of Jesus’ life. Having just celebrated the Passover with his disciples, Jesus warns them of his impending betrayal and of Peter’s threefold denial. He then cautions them concerning difficulties to come: “Then Jesus said, ‘When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ ‘Nothing,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’” The disciples then produce two swords, which prompts Jesus to respond, “That’s enough!” (NIV)
What are we to make of this peculiar exchange? Christian gun-rights advocates in the blogosphere commonly argue that this passage legitimizes the use of lethal force in self-defense. They interpret Jesus’ words as a call for his disciples to arm themselves and to be ready to use these weapons against those who threaten to harm them. Most commentaries, on the other hand, reject this interpretation (see below), because it is extremely difficult to reconcile with what Jesus consistently teaches (non-retaliation) and models (willing self-sacrifice). My previous post on this topic (“Seek the Welfare of the City”) already laid out some of this argument, so I won’t repeat myself here. However, I do want to consider in more detail the incident which most illumines Jesus’ obscure comment in Luke 22:36 on acquiring swords: his arrest in Gethsemane, which occurred only a few hours later.
A Stern Rebuke
In their accounts of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, all four gospel writers record that one of Jesus’ followers draws a sword and attempts to meet violence with violence. We learn from John that the culprit is Peter, who actually sliced off the ear of the High Priest’s slave, Malchus (John 18:10). Apparently, Peter interpreted Jesus’ enigmatic statement on acquiring a sword in the manner that gun-rights advocates suggest, as an endorsement of violent resistance—and is sternly rebuked by Jesus: “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51); “Put away your sword!” (Matt. 26:52; John 18:11). In Matthew’s account, Jesus adds the following rationale to his reprimand: “For all who take up the sword will die by the sword.” The reason why this incident in Gethsemane is so important for understanding Jesus’ earlier intent in Luke 22:36 regarding acquiring a sword is that Jesus seems to be correcting a misunderstanding of that earlier statement by someone who thought Jesus was actually suggesting that violent resistance was appropriate. In fact, some commentaries (Bock, Neyrey) refer to Luke 22:50-51 as Luke’s own “commentary” on the obscure saying in 22:36 in order to correct, as Nolland puts it, “a rather pathetic misapplication of Jesus’ teaching” (Luke, 1090). Whether that was Luke’s precise intention is debatable, but the important point remains: we know that the interpretation of Luke 22:36 offered by gun-rights advocates is wrong because Jesus himself tells us as much in Luke 22:51. He did not intend to be taken in this crudely literal fashion, and he was not encouraging violent resistance. Nor is it legitimate to conclude (as some gun-rights bloggers argue) that in rebuking Peter and commanding him to put down his sword, Jesus was actually saying, “We are outnumbered at the moment; the time is not right for violent resistance.” As Jesus’ rationale makes very clear, this is not a “the time is not right” kind of prohibition; it is a “the time is never right” kind of prohibition.
A Master Teacher
If Jesus was not advocating violent resistance in telling the disciples to acquire a sword, what exactly was he saying? The answer to this question is really not that difficult when we place this statement in the larger context of Jesus’ provocative pedagogical technique. What we observe is Jesus regularly and intentionally articulating important principles by means of provocative hyperbole in order to focus his listener’s attention on his radical call to discipleship. Here are a few of the more well-known examples:
- “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out. . . . If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off” (Matt. 5:29-30). Did Jesus really expect his followers to dismember themselves to prevent sin? None of them ever did, to our knowledge. Or did he mean that they should take every reasonable measure possible to avoid sin?
- “If you have the faith of a mustard seed, you could command this mountain to move, and it will move” (Matt. 17:20; cf. Luke 17:6). Did Jesus really mean that his followers could move actual mountains—tons of earth and granite—with faith? Or did he mean that, through their faith, God could accomplish more than they ever thought possible?
- “If someone slaps your right cheek, turn to them your other cheek also” (Luke 6:29; cf. Matt. 5:39). Did Jesus mean that we should literally turn our other cheek to be slapped? Or did he mean that we should not retaliate when provoked, but rather, “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).
There are so many more sayings like these we could add to this list, but I’ll just mention one more: In Luke 18:22 Jesus tells a wealthy ruler that he must sell all his possessions and give the profits to the poor in order to have treasure in heaven. I recently heard a prominent New Testament scholar from a prestigious secular university explain this by observing, “Jesus taught that one must sell all their possessions to be saved.” Really?? Hmm… Is this what Jesus was actually saying? Or was he shrewdly exposing and targeting the issue that was keeping this man from discipleship, and forcing him to make a choice? This scholar’s comments were part of a nationally televised discussion of the “historical Jesus,” and illustrate that Jesus’ strategically provocative manner of instruction is still—2000 years later!—troublesome and subject to misinterpretation.
Since we know that Jesus rejected Peter’s misguided literal interpretation in Luke 22:51, how should we understand Jesus’ instruction to acquire a “moneybag,” a “traveler’s bag” (more precise renderings of these words) and a sword? Interpreted in light of the immediately unfolding narrative (the agony in the garden, the arrest, the crucifixion), Jesus’ call in Luke 22:36 to acquire these items is seen as a call to readiness, resourcefulness, and vigilance. Jesus is warning his followers—in his characteristically attention-riveting manner—that in the coming days they will need to be prepared for a spiritual battle like they have never before experienced, and it will require a radically different mindset and approach.
“It is enough!”—Wait … What?
Even more puzzling is Jesus’ response to his disciples when they produce two swords: “It is enough!” (Luke 22:38). Of course, two swords are not “enough” for any kind of resistance against the Roman or Jewish authorities, so it is highly unlikely that Jesus meant that. Moreover, when he is arrested by the temple guard a few hours later, Jesus explicitly denies that his agenda involved armed resistance: “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?” (Luke 22:52). Commentaries generally interpret Jesus’ opaque, “It is enough,” in one of two ways. Most believe this was Jesus’ way of abruptly halting the discussion because his disciples had so badly misunderstood his remark about acquiring a sword (Fitzmyer, Stein, Nolland, Bock, Pate, Marshall, Green, etc.). Others perceive irony, even sarcasm in Jesus’ reply (Witherington, Evans, Plummer, Godet, Barker [NIV Study Bible]). According to this reading, we might imagine Jesus rolling his eyes, shaking his head in disbelief, and muttering, “Yeah, right, that should be all we need!” Both interpretations agree that the disciples have misunderstood Jesus. This, of course, is in keeping with the portrayal of the disciples throughout the Synoptic Gospels, and is the most important take-away from this discussion. We can only guess as to why two of the disciples had swords, but we can be certain that Jesus prohibited their use, even in self-defense. As he explains it, “For all who take up the sword, will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
The Rest of the Story
Discipleship is a process and a journey. The disciples in Gethsemane were still in process, and still at the beginning of their journey toward Christ-likeness. As the mantle of the leaderships of the Jesus movement falls on them, and the gospel begins to advance beyond Judea “to the furthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8), the disciples seem to gain a better grasp of Jesus’ intent, and their own calling: to give their lives away. We read of these men being persecuted, abused, beaten, imprisoned, and killed (Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-42; 8:1-3; 9:1-2; 12:1-5), but we read nothing of physical resistance, violence, or swords.
Gun rights advocates who use Luke 22:36 to legitimize the possession of assault-style weapons and the use of lethal force in self-defense will find little support for their interpretation in commentaries and other scholarly discussions of Jesus’ teaching. Their reading of this passage is only possible by ignoring the larger context and method of Jesus’ teaching, and then badly misconstruing Jesus’ intent, as did Peter. Their primary opponent, however, is not the scholarly consensus, but Jesus himself. His rebuke in Luke 22:51 applies as much to them as it did to Peter: “No more of this!”